5 fearless 19th-century women of color who conquered the Wild West
By Cowgirl Candace
Oh, don’t get it twisted: Women pulled their weight on the Western frontier just as much as their cowboy counterparts did.
Sometimes, even better.
A recent editorial trip to Fort Worth, Texas, proves my point. I met and had lunch with Fort Worth Herd trail boss Kristin Jaworski — the nation’s first and only woman to hold this position with the herd. And for nearly two decades, she’s done a damn good job manning the world’s only twice-daily cattle drive. Jaworski leads roughly 22 drovers, 13 horses and 21 steers seven days a week.
“I help keep our diverse cowboy, cowgirl and longhorn history alive,” said Jaworski. “The drive is an educational tool that also plays a huge economic impact in Fort Worth. Collectively, we teach millions of our annual visitors about the 151-year history of the cattle drive. The drive shows what cowboy and cowgirl life looked like in the West, too.”
Interestingly, 2019’s Women’s History Month theme is “Visionary Women: Champions of Peace & Nonviolence.” This year honors women who have led efforts to end war, violence and injustice, and pioneered the use of nonviolence to change society. Fearless females like Jaworski aren’t afraid to bring inclusion to situations and conversations that normally disregard other ethnic groups, especially within cowhand culture.
“It’s important to me that our drovers are representative of the American West,” Jaworski said. “The West was and still is a melting pot.” The Old West women below weren’t afraid to create or influence change on the range by any means necessary, either. Here are a few 19th-century black cowgirls and farm women rarely heard about for their trailblazing contributions back then:
BRIDGET “BIDDY” MASON
Claim to Fame: She became one of the first prominent citizens and landowners in Los Angeles during the 1850s and ’60s.
Mason is also recognized as establishing the First African Methodist Episcopal Church — the oldest African-American church in the city. The Mississippi native was owned by slaveholders in Georgia and South Carolina before returning to her home state. Her last owner decided to follow his church and move his family and slaves out West, which is where Mason challenged her freedom in court and won. She also used her wealth (estimated around $3 million) to become a philanthropist within her Los Angeles community.
Claim to Fame: She authored the oldest known cookbook by a former slave.
This Southern belle was raised in plantation kitchens of South Carolina. Fisher’s culinary gifts matured, and by the time she and her growing family gained their freedom, they moved to San Francisco where her catering skills became well-known. A household name and award-winning cook, Fisher soon turned into business owner of Mrs. Abby Fisher & Co., later renamed Mrs. Abby Fisher, Pickle Manufacturer. Her African- and American-fused recipes became the impetus to publish cookbook “What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.” during 1881. To this day, her cookbook and signature recipes are available for modern cooks and chefs to recreate at home.
Claim to Fame: She is reportedly the first black woman to cross the plains during the Gold Rush.
Born a Virginia slave then later separated from her husband and children at an auction, Brown eventually earned her freedom by her third owner in 1859. She moved to Denver, working as a cook on a wagon train in exchange for transportation. Brown’s travels stopped in Colorado, which is where she established the first laundry. She raked in $10,000 and went on a mission to find her family, helping freed slaves re-establish in Colorado along the way. With little success to reunite with her entire family, Brown never ceased to help freed black men and women start anew on the Western frontier.
HENRIETTA “AUNT RITTIE” WILLIAMS FOSTER
Claim to Fame: A leading frontierswoman and cowgirl of the Texas Coastal Bend.
The Mississippi slave was born during 1822. With her six sisters, she served on a ranch, cooking, cleaning and picking cotton. She moved to Texas because her slave owner lived there. A rough-and-tough cowgirl of her time, Foster was known for her ability to “ride a horse better than a man.” She also learned to ride sidesaddle and bareback. With no educational background, her homestead portfolio spanned from birthing children and sewing wounds to fieldwork and herding cattle.
Claim to Fame: She was a pioneering vaquera, wild horse tamer and translator for the U.S. Army.
A black Seminole, July was born during 1860 in Nacimienta de Los Negros, a Northern Mexico settlement. Her father taught her how to fish, hunt and tend to livestock. July also learned to break wild horses. When the U.S. Army needed scouts and translators acquainted with the border, an older July had the skill set. In addition to translating, July tamed horses and worked the stock for the army and surrounding ranchers as well. Her horsemanship was exceptional. She flawlessly rode bareback and sideways — and without a bridle, too. Instead, she used a simple rope. In fact, she didn’t like saddles or shoes.